Literacy in the United States

Overall literacy in the United States has increased through increased educational accessibility and higher vocational standards. The definition of literacy has changed greatly. The ability to read a simple sentence suffices as literacy in many nations, and was the previous standard for the U.S. The country's current definition of literacy is the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential.[1] The United States Department of Education assesses literacy in the general population through its National Assessment of Adult Literacy.[2] The NAAL survey defines three types of literacy:[3]

  • prose literacy: the knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks (to search, comprehend, and use continuous texts). Examples include editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials.
  • document literacy: the knowledge and skills needed to perform document tasks (to search, comprehend, and use non-continuous texts in various formats). Examples include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels.
  • quantitative literacy: the knowledge and skills required to perform quantitative tasks (to identify and perform computations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials). Examples include balancing a checkbook, figuring out how much to tip, completing an order form or determining an amount.

Educators can test for each type of literacy. According to a 1992 survey, the literary competency of about 40 million adults was at Level 1 (the lowest level: understanding of basic written instructions).[4]

Modern jobs often demand a high level of worker literacy, and its lack in adults and adolescents has been studied. A number of reports and studies are published annually to monitor the nation's status, and initiatives to improve literacy rates are government provisions and external funding.[5]

The National Institute for Literacy estimates that 32 million American adults are unable to read, which can contribute to chronic unemployment, low self-esteem, and a lower quality of available work.[6]


In early U.S. colonial history, teaching children to read was the responsibility of the parents for the purpose of reading the Bible, but in the mid-1600s, Massachusetts law of 1642 and Connecticut law of 1650 required that not only children but also servants and apprentices were required to learn how to read.[7] During the industrial revolution, many nursery schools, preschools and kindergartens were established to formally teach children.[7] Throughout the 20th century, there was an increase in federal acts and models to ensure that children were developing their literacy skills and receiving education.[7] Starting in the 2000s, there has been an increase of immigrants in cities, the majority of whose children speak languages other than English and who thus fall behind their peers in reading.[8] Elementary school literacy has been the focus of educational reform since that time.

The National Bureau of Economic Research published a data set with an overview of the history of education in the United States until the 20th and 21st centuries. According to the bureau, "Formal education, especially basic literacy, is essential for a well-functioning democracy, and enhances citizenship and community."[5]

Nineteenth-century literacy rates in the United States were relatively high, despite the country's decentralized educational system.[5] There has been a notable increase in American citizens' educational attainment since then, but studies have also indicated a decline in reading performance which began during the 1970s.[9] Although the U.S. Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS) and legislation such as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 had highlighted education as an issue of national importance,[10] the push for high levels of mass literacy has been a recent development; expectations of literacy have sharply increased over past decades.[11] Contemporary literacy standards have become more difficult to meet than historical criteria, which were applied only to the elite. Due to the proliferation (and increased accessibility) of public education, the expectation of mass literacy has been applied to the entire U.S. population.

Literacy has particular importance in adulthood since the changing dynamics of the American job market demand greater skills and knowledge of entry-level workers. In the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, young adults without a post-secondary education experienced difficulty obtaining career positions. A multi-variable analysis indicated that low and below-basic literacy rates were characteristic of individuals without higher education,[12] and improving and sustaining mass literacy at earlier stages of education has become a focus of American leaders and policymakers.

Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, interest in the performance of American students relative to other youth populations worldwide has been great. It has been observed that adolescents undergo a critical transition during their grade-school years which prepares them to learn and apply knowledge to their actions and behavior in the outside world.[13] As the job market has become more demanding, the rigor of educational institutions has increased to prepare students for the more-complex tasks which will be expected of them.[14] Addressing sub-par reading performance and low youth literacy rates are important to achieve high levels of mass literacy because the issue of sub-par academic performance is compounded. Students who struggle at an early age continue to struggle throughout their school years because they do not have the same foundation of understanding and breadth of knowledge to build upon as their peers; this often translates to below-average, poor literacy levels in later grades and into adulthood.[15]

Adult and adolescent literacy levels are under greater scrutiny in the U.S., with a number of reports and studies published annually to monitor the nation's status. Initiatives to improve literacy rates have taken the form of government provisions and external funding, which have been driving forces behind national education reform from primary school to higher education.[5]

Defining adult literacyEdit

The simplest definition of literacy in a nation is the percent of people age 15 or older who can read and write, which is used to rank nations. More-complex definitions, involving the kind of reading needed for occupations or tasks in daily life, are termed functional literacy, prose literacy, document literacy and quantitative literacy. These more-complex definitions of literacy are useful to educators, and are used by the Department of Education.

In a 2003 study of adults, the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the Education Department) measured functional literacy.[3] The center measured three types of functional literacy: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. Prose literacy consists of the "knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks", and includes the ability to read news articles and brochures.[3] Document literacy consists of the "knowledge and skills needed to perform document tasks", which include job applications, payroll forms and maps.[3] Similarly, quantitative literacy is the "knowledge and skills required to perform quantitative tasks"; those tasks include balancing a checkbook and filling out an order form.[3]

The governments of other countries may label individuals who can read a few thousand simple words which they learned by sight in the first four grades in school as literate. UNESCO has collected the definitions used by nations in their tables of literacy in its General Metadata on National Literacy Data table; variations depend on whether childhood literacy (age six) or adult literacy was measured. The list distinguishes between a respondent's self-reported literacy and demonstrated ability to read.[16]

Other sources may term individuals functionally illiterate if they are unable to read basic sources of written information, such as warning labels and driving directions. According to The World Factbook from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), "There are no universal definitions and standards of literacy" and its statistics are based on the most common definition: "the ability to read and write at a specified age." According to The National Center for Education Statistics, literacy defines literacy “the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”[17] "Detailing the standards that individual countries use to assess the ability to read and write is beyond the scope of the Factbook. Information on literacy, while not a perfect measure of educational results, is probably the most easily available and valid for international comparisons."[18] The World Factbook reports that the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99 percent, and is number 28 of the 214 nations included. Using its definition, literacy refers to the percentage of people age 15 or older who can read and write.[19][18]

Failure to complete secondary school is blamed for some problems with literacy, and programs directly addressing literacy have increased.[6] According to, the U.S. has a literacy rate of 100 percent and is number 2 on a list of 197 countries.[20] Although the website describes the education systems of nations which have reached near-100-percent literacy, it does not define literacy or provide sources for its ranking.[20]

Measuring adult literacyEdit

Functional literacy can be divided into useful literacy, informational literacy and pleasurable literacy. Useful literacy reflects the most-common practice of using an understanding of written text to navigate daily life. Informational literacy can be defined as text comprehension and the ability to connect new information presented in the text to previous knowledge. Pleasurable literacy is the ability of an individual to read, understand, and engage with texts that he or she enjoys.[21] In a more-abstract sense, multiple literacy can be classified into school, community, and personal concepts. These categories refer to an individual's ability to learn about academic subjects, understand social and cultural contexts, and learn about themselves from an examination of their own backgrounds.[21]

In 1988, the Department of Education was asked by Congress to undertake a national literacy survey of American adults.[22]:xi The study identifies a class of adults who, although not meeting the criteria for functional illiteracy, face reduced job opportunities and life prospects due to inadequate literacy levels relative to requirements which were released in April 2002 and reapplied in 2003 as trend data. The 2002 study involved lengthy interviews with adults who were statistically balanced for age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and location (urban, suburban, or rural) in 12 states across the country, and was designed to represent the U.S. population as a whole. The National Adult Literacy Survey, conducted in 1992, was the first literacy survey which provided "accurate and detailed information on the skills of the adult population as a whole." The U.S. has participated in cyclical, large-scale assessment programs undertaken by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) and sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) since 1992. The survey revealed that the literacy of about 40 million adults was limited to Level 1 (the lowest level, an understanding of basic written instructions).[4]

The Institute of Education Sciences conducted large-scale assessments of adult proficiency in 1992 and 2003 with a common methodology from which trends could be measured. The study measures prose, document and quantitative skills, and 19,000 subjects participated in the 2003 survey. There was no significant change in prose or document skills, and a slight increase in quantitative skills. As in 2008, roughly 15 percent of the sample could function at the highest levels of all three categories; about 50 percent were at basic or below-basic levels of proficiency in all three categories.[22] The government study indicated that 21 to 23 percent of adult Americans were "not able to locate information in text", could "not make low-level inferences using printed materials", and were "unable to integrate easily identifiable pieces of information." About one-fourth of the individuals who performed at this level reported that they were born in another country, and some were recent immigrants with a limited command of English. Sixty-two percent of the individuals on that level of the prose scale said they had not completed high school, and 35 percent had no more than eight years of education. A relatively-high percentage of the respondents at this level were African American, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific Islander, and about 33 percent were age 65 or older. Twenty-six percent of the adults who performed at Level 1 said that they had a physical, mental or health condition which kept them from participating fully in work and other activities, and 19 percent reported vision problems which made reading print difficult. The individuals at this level of literacy had a diverse set of characteristics which influenced their performance; according to this study, 41 to 44 percent of U.S. adults at the lowest level of the literacy scale were living in poverty.[22] A NAAL follow-up study by the same group of researchers, using a smaller database (19,714 interviewees), was released in 2006 which indicated some upward movement of low-end (basic and below to intermediate) in U.S. adult literacy levels and a decline in the full-proficiency group.[23]

The United States was one of seven countries which participated in the 2003 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL), whose results were published in 2005. The U.S. and dozens of other countries began participating in the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a large-scale assessment of adult skills – including literacy – under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2011. The NCES describes the PIACC as the "most current indicator of the nation's progress in adult skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments."[24]

Department of Education surveysEdit

English Language Proficiency Survey (1982)Edit

In 1982, funded by the United States Department of Education,[25] the United States Census Bureau conducted the English Language Proficiency Survey (ELPS): an in-home literacy test of 3,400 adults.[26] The Education Department considered this direct measure of literacy more accurate than a 1979 estimate which inferred literacy from the number of years of education completed.[27] Data from the ELPS were presented in a 1986 Census Bureau report which concluded that 13 percent of adults living in the United States were illiterate in English.[27] Nine percent of adults whose native language was English (native speakers) were illiterate, and 48 percent of non-native speakers were illiterate in English but not necessarily illiterate in their maternal language.[27]

In his 1985 book, Illiterate America, Jonathan Kozol ascribed the very-high figures for literacy to weaknesses in methodology.[28] Kozol noted that in addition to this weakness, the reliance on written forms would have excluded many individuals who did not have a literate family member to fill out the form for them.[28] The Census Bureau reported a literacy rate of 86 percent, based on personal interviews and written responses to Census Bureau mailings. The bureau considered an individual literate if they said that they could read and write, and assumed that anyone with a fifth-grade education had at least an 80-percent chance of being literate. Kozol suggested that because illiterate people are likely to be unemployed and may not have a telephone or permanent address, the Census Bureau would have been unlikely to find them.[28]

National Adult Literacy Survey (1992)Edit

In 1988, the Department of Education was asked by Congress to undertake a national literacy survey of American adults.[22]:xi The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Department of Education, awarded a contract to the Educational Testing Service and a subcontract to Westat to design and conduct the survey.[29]

The 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) provided detailed information on the skills of the adult population as a whole. The survey interviewed about 26,000 people aged 16 and older: a nationally representative sample of about 14,000 people and an additional 12,000 surveys from states which opted into state-level assessments. Its results were published in 1993.[4]:xiv That year, the NALS was described as a nationally representative, continuing assessment of the English-language literary skills of American adults.[30] The study avoided a single standard of literacy, assessing individuals in three aspects of literacy with each aspect defined on a 500-point scale. Scores in each aspect (prose, document, and quantitative) were grouped in five levels: level 1 (0-225), level 2 (226-275), level 3 (276-325), level 4 (326-375), and level 5 (376-500).

National Assessment of Adult Literacy (2003)Edit

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)[31] was sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) as one of its assessment programs.[32] The study included comparisons to the 1992 survey. Adults over sixteen years of age were scored on their prose, document, and quantitative literacy. Although there was no significant change in prose and document literacy between 1992 and 2003, quantitative literacy improved.[24] The study maintained the practice of the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey of dividing literacy into three aspects, each measured on a 500-point scale. Scores in each aspect were again grouped into five different levels, using a new numerical scale which differed for each aspect.

International surveysEdit

Adult Literacy and Life Skills SurveyEdit

The United States participated in the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) with Bermuda, Canada, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, and the Mexican state of Nuevo León. Data was collected in 2003, and the results were published in 2005.[33] Adults were scored on five levels of difficulty in prose, document and numeracy literacy. In 2003, only eight percent of the population aged 16 to 65 in Norway fell into the lowest skill level (level 1). The highest percentage was 47 percent, in Italy; the United States was third-highest at 20 percent.[33]:17

Program for the International Assessment of Adult CompetenciesEdit

The United States participated in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which was "developed under the auspices" of the OECD. The PIACC is a "collaborative endeavour involving the participating countries, the OECD Secretariat, the European Commission and an international consortium led by Educational Testing Service (ETS)".[34] According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the PIACC provides the "most current indicator of the nation's progress in adult skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments" and is a "large-scale assessment of adult skills."[24]

In 2012, 24 countries participated in the large-scale study; thirty-three countries participated in 2014.[35] The 2013 OECD report "First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills", which published the results of tests conducted in 2011 and 2012, said that the "skills of adults in the United States [had] remained relatively unchanged in the decade since the previous report,[clarification needed] while other countries have been showing improvements, especially among adults with low basic skills."[36] The 2011 literacy test for was altered: "Before the PIAAC 2011 survey, however, essentially all that one could infer about the literacy skills of adults below Level 1 was that they could not consistently perform accurately on the easiest literacy tasks on the survey. One could not estimate what literacy tasks they could do successfully, if any."[37]

In 2016, PIAAC 2012 and 2014 data were released.[35] Participating adults in Singapore and the United States had the largest number of adults scoring "at or below Level 1 in literacy proficiency" compared to other participating countries in their performance in "all three reading components". According to the authors of the OECD report, "These results may be related to the language background of the immigrant population in the United States."[34]

Central Connecticut State University studyEdit

From 2005 to 2009, Jack Miller of Central Connecticut State University conducted annual studies aimed at identifying America's most literate cities. Miller drew from a number of available data resources, and the CCSU America's Most Literate Cities study ranks the largest cities (population 250,000 and above) in the United States. The study focuses on six indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical-publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.[38]

City Rankings
2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
Seattle, WA 1 1.5 2 1 1
Washington, D.C. 2 3 5 3.5 3
Minneapolis, MN 3 1.5 1 2 2
Pittsburgh, PA 4 12 9 6 8
Atlanta, GA 5 6 8 3.5 4
Portland, OR 6 10.5 12 10 11
St. Paul, MN 7 4 3 5 9.5
Boston, MA 8 8 10 11 7
Cincinnati, OH 9 10.5 11 7 9.5
Denver, CO 10 7 4 8 6

Elementary school literacyEdit

School curriculum and literacy standards are defined grade-wise, for all students.

Studies show that socioeconomically disadvantaged students, including those with free/reduced lunch, score low reading levels.[39] In addition, English language learners (ELL) and children of immigrants are found to have high dropout rates and low scores on standardized tests.[40] Assuming every student has the same capabilities, school districts provide the same materials for every student in the same grade level, but each student is at a different reading level and often is not able to engage with the text.[41][42][8] Without distinguishing curriculum and standards, English language learners and children from low-income families fall behind their peers.[41][8] Teachers spend a majority of their class time reading and supporting struggling readers, but teachers are not able to do this all the time.[41]

Starting in the 1960s, there were federal responses to address the problems of struggling English language learners and overstretched teachers. Head Start was created in 1964 for children and families living under the poverty line to prepare children under 5 for elementary school and provide their family support for their health, nutrition, and social services.[7] In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a federal response to ensure that each child gets equal education regardless of their class or race.[40] In response to English language learners, in 1968 Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act.[40] The act allowed ELL students to learn in their first language and provided resources to assist schools with ELL students.[40] In 1997, President Bill Clinton proposed that tutors work with children reading below their grade level.[8] Tutoring programs include partnerships with university organizations in which college students tutor and develop the literacy skills of elementary school students.[43] In 2003, President George Bush repealed the Bilingual Education Act and replaced it with the No Child Left Behind act.[40] This act mandated that instruction should be English only and that all students should be tested yearly in English.[40]


In the United States, the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP ("The Nation's Report Card") is the national assessment of what students know and can do in various subjects. Four of these subjects – reading, writing, mathematics and science – are assessed most frequently and reported at the state and district level, usually for grades 4 and 8.[44]

In 2019, with respect to the reading skills of the nation's grade-four public school students, 34% performed at or above the Proficient level (solid academic performance) and 65% performed at or above the Basic level (partial mastery of the proficient level skills). The results by race / ethnicity were as follows:[45]

Race / Ethnicity Proficient level Basic level
Asian 57% 82%
White 44% 76%
Two or more races 40% 72%
National Average 34% 65%
Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander 24% 55%
Hispanic 23% 54%
American Indian/Alaska Native 20% 50%
Black 18% 47%

NAEP reading assessment results are reported as average scores on a 0–500 scale.[46] The Basic Level is 208 and the Proficient Level is 238.[47] The average reading score for grade-four public school students was 219.[48] Female students had an average score that was 7 points higher than male students. Students who were eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) had an average score that was 28 points lower than that for students who were not eligible.

Reading scores for the individual states and districts are available on the NAEP site.[49] Between 2017 and 2019 Mississippi was the only state that had a grade-four reading score increase and 17 states had a score decrease.[50][51]

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • "How Serious Is America's Literacy Problem? Library Journal, April 29, 2020".
  • "News, Michigan reaches settlement in landmark right-to-literacy case, APM Reports, 2020-05-15".


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External linksEdit